Like toilet paper, the bug zapper is one of humankind’s more perfect inventions. It’s not that it was somehow pivotal to our development or anything, and — as I’ll get into later — they may not even be all that effective, but it’s perfect in that in the last 88 years since its invention, it’s barely changed at all. It’s akin to George Costanza’s theory on toilet paper — it’s perfect, thus it needs no improvement.
The patent for the bug zapper was filed in 1931 by two guys named William Folmer and Harrison Chapin, but the names of the first people who thought to zap the shit out of bugs is sadly lost to history. We do, however, know that a 1911 issue of Popular Mechanics featured an article entitled An Electric Death Trap for the Fly, which details a contraption using light bulbs to attract flies and then toast them with electrified wires.
As Popular Mechanics lamented, while innovative in its design, the prototype seemed too expensive to be practical, so the bug zapper would disappear for the next 20 years until that 1931 patent was filed — even then, the patent wouldn’t be issued until 1934. By that time, the two had already improved the design, creating a hanging unit that was accessible via a full 360 degrees for the bugs. That same year, a guy named W.B. Herms introduced his design for a bug zapper, which was circular as well. Since then, very little has changed.
Kristiana Kripena, of the pest control advice blog Insect Cop, explains, “Bug zappers are pretty straightforward devices. They contain a light bulb — usually fluorescent — that emits ultraviolet light. The light attracts bugs to it, which then get zapped by the high voltage electrical wire mesh grid that the zappers are equipped with.” And that’s about it: Bug are attracted by the light, the wires zap him and the fucker’s dead. That’s it, and that’s always been it.
Now, just like toilet paper, there have been some improvements. For example, many have LED lights now, many look more decorative and may double as actual lighting and — as mosquitos aren’t attracted by UV rays — many have carbon-dioxide emitters to attract mosquitoes. That said, some reports seem to suggest that mosquitoes still prefer to get their carbon dioxide from humans, making these traps only somewhat effective. One paper even referred to the efforts to kill mosquitoes via any kind of bug zapper like “trying to capture all the grains of sand on the beach.”
This isn’t just the case with mosquitoes either, as the effectiveness of bug zappers overall seems to be debatable at best. Now, bug zappers do zap bugs, there’s no doubting that, but Kripena explains that not only do they kill annoying bugs like flies and mosquitoes, but also beneficial bugs like fireflies and beetles, some of which actually prey upon the annoying, biting bugs we don’t like.
Bug zappers also, it should be pointed out, attract bugs to your property. While that may seem shocking (heh), if you think about it, the point of the lightbulb and/or carbon-dioxide emitter is to lure the bugs in, so bugs that detect those things may leave your neighbor’s property to go check it out, then decide to come snack on you instead of obligingly getting roasted by the zapper.
That’s not the only downside, either. While a zapper probably can’t kill you, it can burn your hand and even cause electrical issues with your heart (Kripena adds that it could kill squirrels or birds that get tangled up on it, too). Also, they can spread diseases, because when those bugs get lured into the wires, they often explode. As Kripena explains, “They explode because when an insect gets electrocuted via a bug zapper, the bug’s body is heated up, which causes the insect to burst open, which in return looks like it explodes.” Despite the fact that the bug is dead, it may not kill the bacteria and viruses living in and on the bug, meaning it could spread that bacteria to nearby targets like, say, your grill, which is why it’s recommended to not have bug zappers near food preparation areas.
Though rare, they can sometimes cause their victims to catch fire as well, and a flaming moth can indeed be a fire hazard, just as a cigarette butt can be. Because of their gross, disease-spreading nature, some companies have tweaked the design to make things a bit more sanitary, but still, the idea is basically the same as it’s always been — the light attracts and the wires zap.
Alternatives have also been developed due to the rather vomit-inducing shortcomings of the zapper. For example, there are now mosquito traps that attract with light, but then trap the mosquito in a cyclone fan trap, so there’s no zapping at all. Kripena adds that to keep bugs out of your lawn, yard and perimeter sprays are more effective. Then there’s the electric fly swatter, which is basically half a fly swatter and half a bug zapper — the result is basically an electrified tennis racket. Also, it sucks when you pee on these, so don’t do that.
Because this is how my brain works, after learning all this stuff about bug zappers, I began to wonder how big of a bug zapper it would take to kill everyone’s favorite bug-themed superhero, Spider-Man, so I did the math on it, just because.
So, at peak, a dude can lift about five times his bodyweight, while Spider-Man can lift 50 times his bodyweight. To kill one guy, electric chairs were generally set at 2,000 volts at about 10 amps, while bug zappers are usually about 2,000 volts at 2 amps (FYI, amps kill you, not volts).
Assuming that the amps were relative to the zapper’s size — they’re not, but let’s say they are — to kill a normal dude, you’d need to have a bug zapper that’s 50 inches tall (because, to match the electric chair amps, the zapper would have to be five times as big and powerful as a normal 10-inch zapper). For Spider-Man, you’d have to multiply that height times 10, because Spidey is 10 times as strong as a normal guy. So, the Spider-Man-killing bug zapper would need to be 50 feet tall, or slightly taller than the height of a three-story building.